New Jersey referee Alan Maloney, who made a Buena Regional High School wrestler choose between having his dreadlocks cut or forfeiting a match, has been suspended from officiating for two years, state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced Wednesday.

The decision was a victory for Andrew Johnson, who was a junior at Buena in Atlantic County when he made a split-second decision at a Dec. 19 match to have several inches of his brown dreadlocks cut after Maloney told him he could not compete without a hair covering. “I’m going to cry, but cut it,” Johnson said.

“This is vindication,” said his attorney Dominic Speziali. “This entire incident happened based on nothing he did wrong.”

Johnson, 17, and his family have not publicly commented about the incident. Speziali said Johnson, a senior, is "looking forward to the wrestling season.”

A video of a distressed Johnson standing on the mat as a Buena trainer uses scissors to cut his hair went viral. The incident prompted accusations of racism and holding a cultural bias against Johnson, who is biracial. Maloney is white.

The long-awaited suspension announcement sent a ripple through the wrestling community, where Maloney has been a revered official for decades. “Two years is tough," said Camden High wrestling coach Sandy Thame. “My concern is that we are going too far in the other direction, with knee-jerk reactions to things. "

Some civil rights officials said the decision was too lenient.

An agreement reached by the state Division on Civil Rights with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association also will require implicit bias training for officials and staff involved in high school athletics in the state, Grewal said. The state also issued a new “Guidance on Race Discrimination Based on Hairstyle.”

This investigation resulted in an agreement in which there was no finding of liability, said Lee Moore, a spokesperson for the attorney general. A formal complaint was not filed in the case, so the agency was not required to find probable cause for civil rights violations, he said.

“It needs to be a lifetime ban,” said Walter Hudson, founder of the Salem County-based National Awareness Alliance. "A two-year suspension is like a slap on the wrist.”

But Grewal and others made it clear that in the future, wrestling officials must interpret rules about hair for athletes based on the length, not style such as braids, twists, knots, or the dreadlocks worn by Johnson. Policies that ban, limit, or restrict hairstyles closely associated with being black or having black ancestry may violate state law, they said.

“Student athletes should be able to compete with each other on a level playing field,” Grewal said in a statement.

Maloney and his attorney Ralph Paolone did not respond to messages. Maloney, 62, of Berlin Borough, has defended his actions during the match between Johnson and an opponent from Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing. In March, he filed a notice of intent to file a lawsuit alleging defamation of character and emotional distress and citing a loss of income of $100,000.

Suspended referee Alan Maloney is shown in this file photo.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / MCT
Suspended referee Alan Maloney is shown in this file photo.

Immediately after the incident, the athletic association barred Maloney from officiating any meets pending the outcome of the investigations. In 2016, Maloney was embroiled in another controversy after allegedly using a racial slur at a social gathering with wrestling officials. Maloney apologized and was ordered to attend sensitivity training.

Larry White, executive director of the NJSIAA, said he was confident that the changes announced Wednesday “will ensure that a situation like this does not happen in the future.”

State Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D., Essex), who introduced a bill in June based on the Buena controversy that would ban discrimination based on hair in the workplace, housing, and public schools, praised Wednesday’s decision. If approved, New Jersey would join California and New York in addressing the issue of hair among different cultures and ethnic groups.

Maloney, according to the state investigation, initially said Johnson was required to use a covering because “his hair was not in its natural state.” He later told investigators that Johnson had tape or rubber bands at the ends of his hair and that his hair was “abrasive and altered” and would hinder his opponent, the state said. The state said it found no evidence of that.

According to the state investigation, Maloney wrongly found that Johnson violated a rule that stipulates that a wrestler needs a cap if his hair extends below the eyebrows, earlobes, or neckline. The rule, however, is based solely on length, not on hairstyle, the state said.

Maloney must undergo training after his suspension before he can return to officiating.

Lindenwold High School athletic director Derryk Sellers said the clarification was needed because there was confusion, even among referees. Some officials had not enforced the rule as strictly as Maloney with a new generation that wears different styles.

“Culturally, I think a lot of people are afraid to ask questions about something they don’t understand because they don’t want to offend anyone,” Sellers said.

Under the agreement between the state and the NJSIAA, the association said it would provide training to local rules interpreters and wresting officials about the hair rule before the start of this year’s wrestling season. By the end of the 2020-21 school year, schools must provide the training to athletic administrators, coaches, and trainers.

“I’m all for safety. Anything that makes the rules clearer and makes our sports safer, I’m all for that," said Gateway Regional High coach Jim Rutter.​